The German auto giant joined several international companies that have backpedalled recently for offending Chinese consumers with advertising or information that clashes with Beijing's official position.
Mercedes' seemingly benign post to its official Instagram account showed a Benz on a beach before rolling white-capped waves.
“Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open,” the ad copy ran, citing the Dalai Lama, who is seen by Beijing as a separatist.
“Start your week with a fresh perspective on life from the Dalai Lama,” the carmaker wrote in the tagline.
The Zen post immediately drew criticism from Chinese internet users for quoting the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whom Beijing accuses of being a “wolf in monk's robes” seeking Tibetan independence through “spiritual terrorism”.
The Dalai Lama has called for granting Tibetans greater autonomy within China, but not independence.
While Instagram is blocked in China and inaccessible to most Chinese – and the post was penned in English – Mercedes-Benz quickly deleted the photo after the outcry and issued an apology on China's Twitter-like Weibo social media platform.
“Even though we deleted the related information as soon as possible, we know this has hurt the feelings of people of this country,” Mercedes said on its verified Weibo account on Tuesday.
The post “published extremely incorrect information, for this we are sincerely sorry,” the company wrote, without naming either Instagram or the Dalai Lama, or explaining what the offending post was about.
“We have immediately taken real action to deepen our understanding of Chinese culture and values, including among our colleagues abroad, and in this way regulate our behaviour.”
China's foreign ministry applauded Mercedes' quick response on Wednesday, with spokesman Geng Shuang telling reporters: “Recognising and correcting one's mistakes is the most basic of ethics.”
Beijing “welcomes foreign companies to reap the opportunities of China's development but during this process we hope foreign companies can perform the most basic of compliance,” Geng said.
'Enemy of Chinese people!'
China's state media was less conciliatory, with the online edition of the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily running an editorial attacking Mercedes after it published an apology.
“Mercedes-Benz, you've made yourself an enemy of the Chinese people!” the headline of the editorial read.
“Some foreign companies are dredging up gold in China's market at the same time as they are harming the Chinese people, what do they want to do?” it added.
Offending the sensitivities of Beijing has proven a problem for a number of foreign companies tapping the lucrative Chinese market.
Earlier this year, a spate of brands came under government criticism for online material that listed Chinese regions such as Tibet and Hong Kong as separate countries.
Marriott hotels even had its Chinese website and app blocked for a week by mainland authorities, while Spanish clothing giant Zara and Delta Air Lines were also called out.
Trendy Japanese retailer Muji has also faced the wrath of what the foreign ministry called the “new era” of a “more confident and open” China.
One of the retailers' in-store catalogues held a store location map which Beijing said omitted islands disputed with Japan.
“The faulty maps” were ordered “sealed and scrapped” by China's National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation, the foreign ministry said last week.
Nor is this the first Dalai Lama Instagram post to provoke a backlash in China.
Last summer, British band Placebo was scheduled to perform at the Summer Sonic Festival in Shanghai — until they posted a photo of the Nobel winner on Instagram.
The picture resulted “in a lifetime ban by the Ministry of Culture in China,” the band said in another post acknowledging they would be unable to perform.
“We apologise to all the fans who were hoping to see Placebo perform,” it wrote.